The lights were dancing in the air and the crowd was swinging to his music. Sometimes crooning along with his matchless voice and sometimes bouncing to his own groove on stage. Except that this wasn’t a night club show. The singer effortlessly transitioned from one genre and mood to an absolutely different note. Just a few minutes back he had them all on their knees moaning to his tear jerker. But right now, they were enthralled by his energy. The police security was alert to any untoward incident of mass hysteria and quickly swung into action of managing a crowd drunk on his voice. This is not a 20-something year old new kid on the block who has made it to the playlists of Generation Z. He is a 48-years old packet of energy who knows the pulse of the youth. The much belated Padma Shri finally came his way. Many felt it was too little too late. But the fresh sheen of this prestigious award has taken us on the path of re-tracking his unique journey. Sonu Nigam can easily be called today’s legend. A talent that has nothing more to prove in diversity and a style which is difficult to define within one single genre.
I recently attended one of his private concerts on his personal invite and that evening became a testimony to his creative prowess. I have grown up watching him host India’s first popular Reality TV show on music called Sa Re Ga Ma in the 1990s. He recorded a few non-film hit songs in the early days of T-Series and plenty of cover versions from the Golden Era, especially Mohammad Rafi’s timeless classics. Once he entered mainstream Bollywood, he showed he could sing anything from classical to pop, from rap to falsetto. Sonu made a unique connect with the older generation as much as he connected to his own generation, ie, us. And that continues to remain his USP even today. Stitching together generations with a single thread of his talent. As I witnessed the concert, he had managed to tap the next generation as well. So often, he quipped to the audience, “You are dancing to this song today but your parents had romanced to this song in their youth!”
While he’s become very picky and spare with his Bollywood songs lately, he continues to be busy with global concerts, recording songs for OTT platforms, for regional cinema and a few TV shows as judge and performer both. But it’s the brazen speaking of his mind that sometimes keeps him more in the airwaves. Controversy’s favourite child makes him the darling of news channels. What he tries to explain in aspiring to be a Centrist somehow manages to boggle the right-wing as well the Leftists ! He will be anti-loudspeaker for the mosques as well as the temples. He will support the refutable Covid virus life span of 12 hours during Janta Curfew but will as loudly slam the attempts of Hindi language dominance across the country. Just as you can’t put his talent in a labelled box, his opinions on issues are abstract. Despite the differences that I’ve had with him on some of his views, he’s been open to lending an ear. Artists without their echo chamber are often difficult to find.
Sonu actively voices issues of an alleged music mafia, on the importance of treating new comers with tact. He continues to be a prominent face of ISRA (Indian Singers Rights Association) that fights for the right of singers to get 50 per cent royalty on any commercial use of their songs.
This crusading spirit reminds me of my legendary grand-uncle Talat Mahmood. In the 1960s, he took charge of the Playback Singers Association as their first appointed Secretary. It was the debut campaign for the right to royalty fees for playback singers that was heating up. Talat Mahmood led the way, along with his friends Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. It was the longest strike of singers that the film industry had ever seen for the cause. A pioneering moment when music labels and film producers could no longer look away from this demand which made it to the headlines.
We’ve been trying to have Sonu Nigam honour the stage that I have built for Talat Mahmood in a series of tribute concerts called ‘Jashn-e-Talat’. We’re yet to find the right timing for it. Hopefully that day will come soon but for now, it’s watching the building of a new legacy.
The writer is a senior TV news journalist and cultural curator